Finding a Safe Operating Space for Humanity – The Planetary Boundaries

The problem is, our global technology has leapt ahead of our global governance.

The concept of world federalism gripped the popular psyche, and the feigned imagination of some Western leaders, between the inter-state world wars of the 20th century.

It gave way, at the critical moment, to international cooperation amongst sovereign states, acting in the common interest, when the UN Charter was struck.

National sovereignty trumped international cooperation during the twin phenomena of mid/late century – Cold War stagnation and the decolonisation movement.

The post-Cold War paradigm – it has no defining name – is a potpourri of failed US hegemony and directionless multi-polarity, against background static of destructive corporate globalisation and a cacophony from the emerging global civil society.

During all of this, humanity’s ecological footprint has enlarged at an almost exponential pace, eclipsing Earth-share in 1981 and relentlessly shooting up to a 50% overshoot today.  Technology, which generated and facilitated this, has failed to protect against its destructive side-effects.  The result is a global crisis.

And for most of this period it has been the generals advising the leaders, largely to purposeless effect.  Now it is the time of the scientists.  Germany’s Schellnhüber advised the UN Security Council in February this year.  The UN’s Military Staff Committee has been comatose for decades and is in cryogenic state – perhaps best advised to remain that way.

Meanwhile, an array of research institutes, largely in Europe and loosely linked to the UN process through the IPCC, are exploring new conceptual ways of understanding global change – starting with empirical scientific enquiry, continuing with economic and social impact and, more recently if more hesitantly, foraying into political issues of global governance.

One step further removed, and thus on the frontier of enquiry into global affairs, is the Stockholm Resilience Centre. It is no accident that progressive thinking of this kind is conceived in Sweden.  It would not be the first time.

The SRC, along with some enterprising Australian counterparts, have taken the initiative some four years back to identify certain planetary boundaries pertaining to the ecosystem.  The boundaries, measurable in quantitative terms, form the thresholds within which humanity must operate if we are all to remain ‘safe’. For ‘humanity’, read global economy and, above all else, global biodiversity.

This is closely related to the new geological concept of the Anthropocene – the era that is taking over from the Holocene of the past 10,000 years.  A stable benign climate is giving way to turbulence that is anthropogenically driven.  The Anthropocene is, by definition, the era in which the future of the planet’s ecosystem lies, for the first time, in the hands of one species.

It is not just climate change (atmospheric concentration of gases). That is only one of the nine boundaries identified. It is also ozone depletion, the bio-geochemical cycle, biodiversity loss (causal as well as consequential to global change), resource depletion (fresh water, oceans, land use) and other waste (chemical pollutants).

The work on planetary boundaries is at early prototype stage – with many acknowledged gaps.  It is roughly akin to where the ecological footprint was back in the late-‘90s.  But it will almost certainly bed in as the years go by, and it is likely to prove to be the saving ingredient, if there is to be one, of humanity’s climb out of the abyss it finds itself in, during the late-Westphalian era of globalisation.

And that is just the science.  The Centre is venturing into the political implications of all this.  It has new projects. Some are exploring the implications of the planetary boundaries for global environmental governance.[1]  One is exploring the religious-spiritual dimension of planetary boundaries thinking.[2]

Another is beginning to plot the ‘policy relevance of planetary boundaries for measuring national environmental performance’: the track record of individual (61) countries in terms of their national contribution, positive or negative, to humanity remaining within the boundaries.[3]  Sweden is one of those; so is New Zealand.

What, then, might this mean, if anything, for New Zealand – our society and our glorious government?  If we so choose, not much.  And, if we so choose, potentially everything.

It is about exploring, probing, finding our way to planetary stewardship – custodianship, vice-regents of Earth as Islam has it.  Learning, as we make our way along the precipice that is the 21st century in the Year of Our Lord, but actually 10,000 years of experience in government and development, learning to be good, if fledgling, Anthropocenes.

So we could, perhaps, look to coordinate some work with the Australians in this fascinating area of enquiry.

Something, perhaps for like-minded research bodies in New Zealand: the Institute for Governance & Policy Studies in Wellington, and the NZ Centre for Global Studies in Auckland.

Time will tell.

[1] Global environmental governance and planetary boundaries: An introduction

Transforming governance and institutions for global sustainability

Navigating the Anthropocene: Improving Earth System Governance

Planetary boundaries – exploring the challenges for global environmental governance—exploring-the-challenges-for-global-environmental-governance.html \

Institutional and Political Leadership Dimensions of Cascading Ecological Crises

5 Comments Posted

  1. As a minor victim of the Vietnam War era in the US, I see that time as a model for the likely unfolding of the various challenges faced today by humanity worldwide. That vastly destructive social phenomenon was passionately supported by masses of people who were misinformed or seeking maximum personal profit, and opposed by informed idealists like today’s Greens.

    Looking back now from age 68, I see that in terms of outcomes, the most constructive possible response by an informed American was not the kind of resistance that was practiced, the echoes of which still harmfully divide that nation, but simply a quiet and intelligent workaround to the extent possible.

    I told Jeanette Fitzsimons back when we Greens were still part of the Alliance that the climate-change battle was already lost. Twenty years later is not the time to start any new studies or political efforts to reduce carbon emissions or quantify our other environmental impacts. The Club of Rome plowed that ground in 1972, and is vilified (along with Jeanette) by people like Rodney Hide to this day.

    The best we can do is recognize our status as informed, intelligent refugees from a nearly global disaster, and act accordingly.

    Now, even more than in 1968 or 1993, opposing the multiple forces that massively over-determine humanity’s collective behavior is wasteful – an environmental error in its own right. Optimal use of our resources is critically important now, while some intelligent choices are still available.

    We in New Zealand need to prepare our infrastructure, including roads, towns, ports, and sewage treatment facilities, against the rising seas and increasingly common and violent storms that we know are coming. We need to redevelop our railroads to keep the nation united and supplied when petroleum for cars and trucks is prohibitively costly, or is simply unavailable due to conflicts that will see it consumed by the major powers’ militaries.

    We need to begin large-scale research and pilot-plant production of the more tropical crops that we can hope to grow here, from mainstays like bananas, breadfruit and monkey pod to luxuries like cacao and coffee, plus others that experts will know of. We need to develop the resources to combat the tropical insects and diseases that are sure to arrive. We need a massive and thoughtful effort to prepare for the inevitable, not a hopeless replay of yesterday’s battles.

    The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The only time to deal with the inevitable is now.

  2. During all of this, humanity’s ecological footprint has enlarged at an almost exponential pace

    Funnily enough, that’s about the rate at which the planet’s population is rising, too.

    And there’s the problem. Population. We need it to not keep growing. Actually, we need it to shrink.

    So when BJ notes that “It is our children who are the victims”, what he really means is that they are the next generation of the problem, as they too will breed (like us) in an uncontrolled manner and continue the exponential increase in the world’s population.

    The only good news on the horizon is that people will die as a result of sea level rise and the like. The bad news is that these people are, through a crooked twist of fate, not the ones causing the most problems. Those people will be the last to go.

  3. Exactly right Tony. We ran out of time several years ago. Now it is only a matter of how great the damage will be, there is no option that keeps us (our children) from being hurt.

    Which is the problem. It is our children who are the victims. If it were us we could take the criminals on in the present.

  4. These are global problems (or predicaments) that require global responses. A Scientific American article about the safe operating space is here. A presentation on the subject can be found here.

    What Kennedy forgot to point out is that, according to the study, we’ve already crossed 3 of the 9 boundaries, getting close on a few more, with two boundaries still unquantified. A safe operating space is only safe if no boundaries are crossed. So it only takes one boundary to be breached for bad things to happen. It looks like we’ve breached three, at least.

    So the situation is much worse than you imagine. We haven’t really got time for “exploring, probing, finding our way to planetary stewardship”.

    But thanks for highlighting the issue.

  5. Great article Graham. Its this type of initiative which should be a primary focus of attention for leaders around the world – but the current bunch of Corporate Lackeys who run this amazing country continue to push the 19th Century ‘Growth is Good’ message. ..dont expect them to pay any attention….

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